Sublime writing — like a movie

Amit Chaudhuri is one of the best Indian writers in English today. Salman Rushdie may be more flamboyant, but when it comes to describing a scene, Chaudhuri is second to none. He can be as vivid as a photograph or a video.

The only reason he is not better known is his short stories and novels are not ambitious in scope: they are more like subtle miniatures than epics. But Chaudhuri, who teaches creative writing at the University of East Anglia, has won several literary awards. Praising him, the Guardian said:

Yes, he writes about India, but not the Technicolor romps British readers have come to expect since Midnight’s Children. Mr Chaudhuri’s work is better, and more truthful, than that…

Here’s an extract from A Strange and Sublime Address, which won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book in 1991. It’s set in Calcutta (Kolkata), where Chaudhuri was born. Here he is describing three little boys looking out of a window and watching pigeons mating. They are too young to know what the birds are up to. The details are fascinating. It’s both poetic and funny.

On the far side of the parapet, while the rest dreamed, two pigeons began to kiss each other in a solemnly painful manner, beaks locked together, heads moving up and down simultaneously as if they were trying to release themselves from the mysterious lock. It was a strange kind of passion; it was the only way birds could embrace, or come close to embracing — locking their beaks in that funny, tortured way. Finally, the male climbed on the female’s back and proceeded to flap its wings in an abstracted fashion. The female waited, bending its head in a world-weary manner.

“What are they doing?” asked Babla, noting the nuances of the scene in fascination.

Sandeep did not know.

“I think they’re fighting,” he said, not sure of the validity of his superior knowledge.

“If they’re fighting,” said Abhi,”why doesn’t the other one struggle?”

“It’s lost,” said Sandeep.”It knows it’s defeated.”

The entire spectacle,from courtship to climax to possible marital bliss or discord,lasted around ten minutes. God had apparently created these birds with the sole purpose of amusing slothful boys, and probably Himself, on unpleasantly humid afternoons.

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